Darrius G. Smith was named the new head coach of Fort Lewis College football on Friday.
Multiple sources confirmed the move Thursday. FLC President Tom Stritikus addressed the Board of Trustees in a public meeting via teleconference Friday afternoon, and the board voted unanimously to approve a three-year, $75,000 per-year contract for the football coach.
“When the job came open, I said, ‘I want that one. I want that one bad,’” Smith said Thursday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I put every effort and ounce of energy to get an interview. When I got out there, I wanted to show everyone I was serious. I’m not just someone taking a job to get a job. I love the area, I feel at home when I come out to the Southwest, and it felt right when I got off the plane for the interview.
“I see the program as a diamond in the rough with the type of student-athletes we are able to attract to the Rim. It’s exciting for me, exciting for the players in the program right now, and I will recruit the type of guys who can 100% get to work for Fort Lewis College.”
Smith will replace Brandon Crosby, who resigned from the position Jan. 30 to accept a role as an offensive analyst for Boise State. Smith will be the fifth head coach of the Skyhawks since 2015 and the 14th in program history dating back to 1963. Smith is the first African American to be named head coach in FLC history.
“I was so impressed by Darrius’ energy and his passion, and I think he’s going to be an incredible leader for our campus and a role model to our students,” Stritikus said. “We’ve made a commitment to diversifying our faculty and staff, and I am excited to see athletics be part of that as well.”
Coach hirings do not require the approval of the Board of Trustees, but the approval of a three-year contract does need board approval. Most FLC coaches are not under multi-year contracts. The last time a three-year contract was awarded was when men’s basketball coach Bob Pietrack was given a three-year deal that will expire after this season.
FLC Athletic Director Brandon Leimbach said getting a coach on a multi-year contract was pivotal in the hiring process to bring stability to the program and its student-athletes.
“More than anything, he was passionate, so committed and excited to be here,” Leimbach said of Smith. “He’s a high-energy guy, a relentless recruiter and a great offensive mind. He firmly believes in shaping the lives of the young men, and he wants to be here.
“I feel like we needed some stability and someone committed to Skyhawks football. So, it was important for me to get someone on a multi-year contract to show alums and the student-athletes that we have someone who wants to be here.”
Smith has coached college football for more than 20 years. Last season, he was the offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach of the Bryant University Bulldogs in Rhode Island. The Division I Football Championship Subdivision team went 4-8 overall and 3-4 in the Northeast Conference. The Bulldogs finished sixth in the eight-team conference and ranked seventh in scoring at 16.6 points per game.
FLC had plenty of its own trouble on offense, as it ranked last in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in rushing offense and 10th out of 11 teams in points per game, total offense and passing.
“I was trying to get an offensive guy in here,” Leimbach said. “We averaged 13 points last year, and the defense scored touchdowns. We needed an offensive-minded guy in here to help us light up the scoreboard.”
The connection for Smith to FLC comes through longtime FLC coach Ed Rifilato, who has twice been the Skyhawks’ head coach and served as the defensive coordinator last season. Rifilato resigned his post as FLC defensive coordinator effective Jan. 24, but he is expected to stay with the Skyhawks and serve as Smith’s defensive coordinator. The upcoming season would be Rifilato’s 16th with FLC.
Smith said he would sit down with all of the current coaches on the FLC staff before making decisions.
“Rif cares about this place so much. He wants what is best for the program,” Leimbach said. “The opportunity to get Rif back and call the defense was a win-win.”
Smith and Rifilato have coached together previously at New Mexico Highlands and Idaho. Smith was on the Highlands staff with Rifilato from 1996 to 1999, including Rifilato’s 1999 season as the Cowboys’ head coach when the team won the RMAC championship.
Rifilato left Highlands after that season to become defensive coordinator at the University of Idaho under head coach John L. Smith, who famously coached FLC from 2013 to 2015. Smith would join the Idaho staff from 2001 to 2002 and worked with Rifilato there in 2001.
Before joining Bryant University, Smith was the running backs coach and offensive recruiting coordinator for four seasons at the University of Massachusetts and the running backs coach for eight seasons at Villanova. He was part of Villanova’s FCS National Championship team in 2009 and orchestrated the Colonial Athletic Association’s top rushing attack in five of his seasons with the team.
At UMass, Smith coached Marquis Young, who was a three-time candidate for the Doak Walker Award as the top college running back.
Before his time at Villanova, Smith coached three seasons at Northeastern, three at James Madison, two at Idaho, two at Indiana (Pennsylvania) and six at New Mexico Highlands.
“I’m real familiar with the conference from my early days at New Mexico Highlands,” Smith said. “In the last few years, I vacationed in Durango three or four times. I’ve always loved the area. It’s the right time for me and my career.
“(Rifilato) and I worked together as assistants. When he was the head coach of Highlands in ’99, he made me the offensive coordinator, and, obviously, we won an RMAC title together.”
Smith is a 1995 graduate of Frostburg State University out of Maryland. He was a defensive back and had 12 interceptions in three seasons. He also began his coaching career at Frostburg State as a graduate assistant.
Crosby resigned from FLC a week before the national signing day. A few freshmen still committed to the Skyhawks to add to five mid-year transfers Crosby and his staff had announced in early January.
In 2019, FLC went 3-7 in a schedule consisting of all conference games. The Skyhawks lost their final five games and struggled offensively when starting quarterback Jake Lowry was lost early in the season because of an injury for a second consecutive year.
FLC has not had a winning season since 2015 and has only 11 teams with a record above .500 in program history.
“The Year 1 goal is to be better than we were last year,” Smith said. “We are going to take small steps and do things the right way. We are going to play fast, fundamental football in all three phases. We will play with controlled aggression. That’s what I’m going to instill. Hard-nosed, fast, fly-around football with controlled aggression.”